2015 was a big year for the board game hobby. Games like XCOM: The Board Game brought a renewed focus on integrating games with technology, while titles such as Pandemic Legacy or T.I.M.E Stories took big risks, ditching the concept of infinite replayability in favor of detailed and memorable narrative. Friedemann Friese’s 504 took the opposite tack, packing 504 potential games into a single box. Legendary Encounters: A Predator Deck-Building Game proved that last year’s Legendary Encounters: Alien wasn’t a one-hit-wonder, Codenames and Mysterium revolutionized party games, and titles such as Isle of Skye, The Gallerist, Fief: France 1429, Churchill, and Trickerion provided some succor for fans of complex strategy. Below are my personal top picks of the year. (Bias Alert: As should be clear from the lineup, I have a soft spot for cooperative games.)
by Peggy Chassenet and Manuel Rozoy
Published by Space Cowboys
I’ve only just started playing this narrative-driven Quantum Leap-inspired card game, so I can’t yet render judgment on the success of its heady endeavor, but it’s already proven its worth on the strength of visual impact and raw ambition alone. For this reason, I couldn’t help but include a few snapshots from the first minutes of the game. It’s difficult to describe the game without trespassing into spoiler country, but I’ll try: T.I.M.E Stories describes itself as an intersection between a roleplaying game and a board game, but I’ve also heard it described as a card-driven take on the classic graphical adventure games à la Myst and The 7th Guest, an analogy I didn’t fully appreciate until breaking open the box and actually playing the game. As temporal field agents, the players step into the bodies of “receptacles” living in a certain time period, in this universe or a parallel one, and must attempt to discover and fix a potential temporal disruption. You have a certain number of actions, measured by TU or Time Units, to get the job done, after which you are transported back to base, the deck is reset, and you must delve in again–with new knowledge and perhaps a persistent item or two. Moving through and interacting with the world is achieved via panoramic tableaux of cards representing each location, each card representing a point of interest (a clickable point in the above analogy); a player visiting these POI can flip the card over and describe the text and/or image therein to the rest of the team. By exploring, performing tests, solving embedded puzzles and collecting items, you will gradually work your way through to the story’s conclusion, at which point you are ready to purchase a new deck containing an entirely separate adventure.
by Floyd Pretz
Published by Project Danger
Moving from a game lauded by many to a game I’m certain almost nobody else played, let me introduce Stowaway 52, a poker-style deck of 52 cards and change that is also a narrative game and a logistical puzzle in the same sense as T.I.M.E Stories, albeit on a much, much smaller scale. Each of the ranked cards is a decision point–think of a Twine story with 52 paragraphs connected in a web-like fashion–while the jokers are rules and endings. The story begins in media res: you are a stowaway aboard an alien spaceship, and you must somehow disable it before it destroys Earth. Your ultimate goal is to find the path that passes through each card only once, although I enjoy simply dropping in on a random card and seeing how long I can survive before I am forced into a dead end. Unfortunately, the author/publisher has been silent lately; I would have loved to see new 52-card adventures in the future.
by Błażej Kubacki
Published by NSKN Games
Going into the year, Mistfall was, along with T.I.M.E Stories, my most anticipated game. I’ve been following its design since 2013, when it was known as Songs of Artha and set to be published independently. After the designer joined forces with Romanian publisher NSKN Games, the game went through an identity crisis, overhauling the art, setting and some gameplay elements, and emerged as Mistfall, a card game that captures the best aspects of fantasy roleplaying games with the need for compendiums of a dungeon master. While the finished product fell short of my expectations in some ways–the rules are abhorrently organized and edited, the characters aren’t quite balanced, and the purchasable “feats” are slightly lacking in variety–it went far beyond them in other areas, particularly the realization of the game’s setting and the narrative its encounters evoke. Beyond its clever and deep deck manipulation and other innovative mechanics, it is the best distillation of a tabletop roleplaying game I’ve encountered in this medium.
I have determined not to mention games, however widely praised or highly anticipated, that I haven’t had the opportunity to play (sorry, Pandemic Legacy). The Grizzled is the exception. Illustrated by Bernard Verlhac, alias Tignous, a cartoonist who was killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack, this is probably the most important game of the year in terms of legitimizing board games as a serious medium. It’s a cooperative game set in the trenches of World War I, emphasizing the difficulty of communication and psychological toll experienced by a platoon of normal infantrymen when mortar-shells and gunfire have drowned all their senses. An expanatory note from the reads, in part, “At the same level as literature and cinema, games are a cultural media which is undeniably participative. There are no subjects it can’t broach…. Guided by the deepest respect that the suffering endured by these men has inspired in us, we’ve worked in designing and tweaking this game with this constant concern. In this collective insanity we’ve chosen to focus on the individual, with his preoccupations and his daily fears.”
The Bloody Inn
by Nicolas Robert
Published by Pearl Games
We proceed from gallows humor to black comedy with The Bloody Inn. The concept sounds like a de-surrealized reimagining of Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris: “France 1831: In a remote corner of Ardèche, the little village of Peyrebeille sees numerous travelers pass through…. A family of greedy rural farmers is determined to make its fortune, and has devised a diabolical stratagem to achieve this goal: Invest in an inn so they can rob traveling guests, getting rich without arousing the suspicions of the police!” This farcical setup comes across perfectly in the elegant ruleset, which sees players take guests into their hands (“bribing” them) as “accomplices,” then play those cards to assist in various stages of murder and cleanup. Bribing police makes you more efficient at offing guests, while bribing clergy helps you dispose of the bodies. Two innovative mechanisms complete the formula. First, though your victory points are measured in francs, you can never have more than 40 at a time; you must skip a turn every once in a while to “launder” the money, turning it into 10-franc cashier checks. Second, each player gets only two turns per round, and if there are still police in the rooms and unburied bodies when a round ends, you’ll have to pay the city gravedigger an exorbitant sum to hide the body in a hurry. Often, the most efficient way to avoid a police inquiry is to murder the officers themselves, which can quickly result in one player sweating over a mountain of unburied corpses.
by Keren Philosophales and Michael Shinall
Published by Cool Mini or Not
This game took me completely by surprise. I love horror, I love deck-building games, and I love cooperative games, so I should have been eagerly anticipating its release, but the reputation of the publisher as a minis-first, gameplay-second company made me leery. When I finally played it, I discovered a game unlike anything else I’ve played, before or since. The real innovation here is the fully collaborative gameplay: while planning their base defense against insectoid aliens, players can donate cards freely to one another, and you can also generally play items and powers on another player’s turn. All of which is needed, since this game gets hard as you enter the final wave of enemies. In another neat twist on the deck-building formula, you never need to purchase your main resource, an unobtanium-like mineral called xenosathem; newly “mined” xenosathem gets added to your hand automatically at the start of your turn, keeping the pace quick and the focus on surviving the onslaught, not building a resource mill.
Darkness Comes Rattling
by Kevin Wilson
Published by Wyrd Miniatures
Another left-field entry in this year’s lineup comes from Wyrd, a company known primarily for their Malifaux line of miniatures and some zany card games like Evil Baby Orphanage or Jetpack Unicorn. Darkness Comes Rattling is unlike anything else in their catalog, and in some ways unlike anything else in board games. Mother Moon, the creator of all, cut out her left eye to make the Sun, inadvertently birthing the great serpent Darkness by the same process. Darkness, jealous of the affection Mother Moon lavished on the Sun and the globe of Tallil, struck back at its mother by swallowing the Sun. The giant snake now hides away while it slowly digests its meal, and warriors from the many Tribes of Man have gathered to hunt down Darkness and cut the Sun from its belly. The game streamlines and modernizes many of the concepts from Wilson’s work on Arkham Horror, doing the same kind of narrative work on a smaller map with a tighter item pool and more interesting dice-rolling mechanics. There are a lot of innovations that make this a best-in-class “go here, encounter a card” game, but the biggest star is the fantastic flavor text that evokes folklore from all corners of the world. It’s a mechanically flawed experience (the “chase the sun” endgame through Darkness’ belly is poetically and visually genius but tedious and unbalanced in play) but ambitious enough to be worth reforming with a liberal application of house rules.
by Jake Staines
I’ve already sung the praises of Austerity in my review of the 2015 Solitaire Print-and-Play Contest, but in reflecting on the games I’ve played this year, I’ve realized that this is not only the best free print-and-play game, but also one of the best games of the year, full stop. It’s ridiculously easy to assemble–one printed sheet, a handful of colored cubes/chips/disks, no cutting unless you want to add in one of the expansion elements–yet full of depth, ingenuity, and some genuine perspective on relevant world events. One of the best things about the board game hobby is that it regularly explores themes you’d never see in a mainstream video game, and acting as Finance Minister for a debt-ridden European country certainly qualifies.
by Isaac Childres
Published by Cephalofair Games
Isaac Childres loves swords and sorcery and monster-slaying as much as the rest of us, but he hates randomness in his games. Thus Forge War, a tabletop Atelier Iris that puts you in control of a monster-stabbing weapon’s entire life journey, from the mines to the dungeon. This is one of the heaviest fantasy games you’ll play, meaning there is a lot of consideration and planning that goes into each and every action you take. It begins with mining resources, a Chinese Checkers-inspired minigame that provides you with your raw materials for the round. You’ll then go into a worker placement phase in which you can buy new weapon blueprints, hire or train adventurer, or engage in other services. Finally, you can take on a quest, sending your adventurers–armed with whatever gear you can forge and they can carry, some equipment being reserved for higher-level heroes–for gold and glory. Quests take several rounds to pay off, and you’ll want to keep several going at once to maximize your points at the end of the game, but you’ll need to forge a weapon anew for each adventurer you dispatch. All in all, this is a tremendously unique, infuriatingly tight resource-management game that still manages to feel like a true adventure.